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February 10, 2006

We hate to say we told you so...

Topics: Commentary

by Pamela Hennessy

Throughout the past few years of being active in the campaign to protect the life and basic rights of Terri Schiavo, I've been fortunate enough to meet a number of learned and thoughtful people in and around the disabled community.

Of those, a number of esteemed journalists, advocates and attorneys repeatedly called for a halt to the forced dehydration of Schiavo, based both on the grave injustice to her such an action would affect and on the shockwaves that would be felt throughout our country's communities of vulnerable persons.

Since Schiavo's court-ordered death, several similar cases have come into public view -- in Florida and from beyond the state's borders. Of these cases, none have more plainly proven the points of Schiavo's supporters than that of Haleigh Poutre.

Haleigh is a child with a serious problem. She suffered a traumatic brain injury in September of 2005 -- allegedly, at the hands of her adoptive mother and step-father -- and has been left in a debilitated state ever since. Upon being hospitalized, Haleigh was placed on a ventilator and began receiving nourishment by way of a gastric tube. Her care was made the responsibility of Massachusetts's Department of Social Services (DSS).

DSS was not unfamiliar with the 11-year-old child. Indeed, the department had been tasked with investigating ongoing allegations of abuse against young Haleigh for years. Critics say they did too little, too late.

But, when Haleigh met with her dreadful injuries, it didn't take the department long (not even a week, in fact) to move swiftly into action. They petitioned the courts for the authority to remove Haleigh's life-saving medical treatment and allow her to die.

A single day after that state's Supreme Court granted the department the power to take the actions that would ensure young Haleigh's death, the girl experienced an upturn. Doctors now stated that hers was not a persistent vegetative state, as originally thought, but a minimally conscious state.

Naturally, brakes were jammed, Haleigh was transferred to a rehabilitation facility and her life was ultimately spared.

I tell you all of that in order to tell you this: it would not be unreasonable to demand a moratorium on dehydrating and starving vulnerable people to death and I'm not alone in my thinking. In fact, you've probably heard it before.

Vulnerable persons and the thin end of the wedge
Prominent disability rights advocates, right-to-life proponents and members of both the healthcare and legal professions have long been warning the public of the intrinsic dangers of forcing profoundly disabled people to die by withholding ordinary care -- such as enteral nourishment -- from them.

Attorney and published author, Wesley J. Smith (Culture of Death; Forced Exit) has long admonished the practice of denying vulnerable people the basic provisions of food and water. Smith has taken to task the 'bioethicists' who have promoted the notion that unconscious people were better off dead than fed. He has stated, in books as well as countless editorials, that the practice would soon be applied to conscious but inconsistently responsive people and, thus would begin what he calls a "slippery slope" to the public and legal acceptance of medical killings.

So far, he's been right.

A January 27, 2005 article in the Boston Globe about Haleigh Poutre's case (Girl with damage to brain is sent to rehab center) states that the minimally conscious state (MCS) strengthens some arguments for the removal of medical care.

"...because such patients can feel pain, some medical ethicists said. Patients in a vegetative state, on the other hand, are oblivious to the agony that is part of their life."

Of course, a neurological injury doesn't go hand in hand with pain and I'm a little confused how one could be both 'oblivious' and in 'agony'. Nevertheless, the article seems to insinuate that a new standard for denying people their basic rights to ordinary care are worth taking into consideration. Suggesting that a person with a severe neurological insult be given appropriate care -- including adequate pain management if pain exists -- just doesn't come up.

So, 'bioethicists' have added yet another item to their dogpile of flimsy excuses for murdering innocent people. Ironic that it completely contradicts their previous pretext. If you're unaware, you shouldn't be made to hang around. If you are aware, you're probably better off dead anyway.

It seems as if incapacitated people are damned if they do, damned if they don't. Smith sees it as a slippery slope. I call it the thin end of the wedge. Some have even said it's the opening of a flood gate. Whatever your euphemism is for the deprivation of ordinary care to the profoundly disabled, it still equates to murder.

Raising the bar on the disabled

In 1996, attorney Diane Coleman, J.D., founded the disability rights organization known as Not Dead Yet. Coleman, in cooperation with other advocates, has been responsible for bringing the plight of disabled people into the eyes of a routinely indifferent public. Active as Amicus Curiae in the cases of Sidney Miller, Robert Wendland and Terri Schiavo, Coleman has been an outspoken opponent of dehydrating cognitively disabled people to death.

In both spoken and written word, Coleman has also rebuked 'bioethicists' for what she calls "raising the bar" on people who are unable to speak for themselves, based solely on their disabilities. She's warned that the segments of people now considered better off dead would spider into new segments and bring about unspoken public policies that embrace the perception that the life of a disabled person is one not worth living.

So far, she's been right.

The same January Globe article quotes Dr. Douglas Katz, a director of a traumatic brain injury center in this way:
"...many patients in a minimally conscious state can track movements with their eyes and even pick up objects. But only when they begin to pick up objects and use them appropriately are they believed to have gained a higher level of consciousness."

This was his response to Haleigh Poutre successfully picking up a rubber duck on command, out of a group of three objects, and then a Curious George plush on command.

If hearing "pick up the duck", processing the command mentally, carrying it out and then repeating the behavior successfully a second time don't serve as proof of the young girl's higher level of consciousness, Diane Coleman needs to start including the title 'clairvoyant' to her signature block. Simply stated, she nailed it years ago.

Perhaps Dr. Katz expected the traumatically injured and -- as of that time -- unrehabilitated girl to write a thesis on Curious George instead of complying with verbal commands. Had she, I'm almost certain I'd here yet another apologist for the 'right-to-die' crowd calling it a meaningless reflex.

A societal train wreck

The point of all of this is that what was once speculated upon is now coming to pass. The slippery slope has turned into a dead-drop and the raising of the bar has gone as high as the Empire State Building.

If you suffer a life-changing brain injury, extent of damage, your ability to respond, even your personhood simply don't matter anymore. Someone somewhere will conjure up a palatable and oh-so compassionate excuse for offing you.

Perhaps the only way to put a stop to this brand of lunacy is to simply place a moratorium on removing the provisions of basic care from people with cognitive and neurological impairments. Cases like Haleigh Poutre's certainly support such an argument in volumes and conscientious people should be moved by cases such as hers.

These, however, are not new arguments. They have been the precise points made throughout a number of 'right-to-die' cases, including Robert Wendland, Sidney Miller, Paul Brophy, Hanford Pinette, Michael Martin, Terri Schiavo, Marjorie Neighbert and countless others.

Some reporters will have you think that there is no connection between young Haleigh Poutre and the cases I've just mentioned, but there is and it's sobering in its starkness. They are all exceptionally good reasons to rethink the hurried dehumanization of certain people that society views as weak and no longer of value.

They all serve as unfortunate and unforgettable reminders that any one of us could be next. The future, it seems, is a lot closer than we imagined.

Pamela F. Hennessy is a marketing and media executive in Florida and has volunteered for the Terri Schindler-Schiavo Foundation (www.terrisfight.org) since November of 2002.

HT: TerrisFight

Posted by tim at February 10, 2006 9:11 AM


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